Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Unmistakable Genius: Greg Kot's I'll Take You There, Mavis Staples

Just put some Mavis Staples in the CD player (or however you listen to music these days) and crank it up. That voice, that unmistakeable glorious voice, will take you there all right. I've witnessed her power in person a couple of times, and the most recent was extraordinary. The lady is over 70 years old now, and still on the road. Her solo CDs are selling better than ever. The sympathetic production by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy doesn’t hurt, and certainly that tight touring band made the songs come alive in concert. But where did she come from? Where has she been? What’s her story? Chicago writer Greg Kott tells the tale in his fine new book I’ll Take You There. He starts with the story of Mavis’s father Roebuck Staples who at five years old watched a mule-driven wagon carry his mother away to her grave in 1920 Mississippi. Roebuck was the seventh son of Warren and Florence Staples, the family worked on the Dockery Plantation Farms, plowing, planting, chopping and picking cotton. The family had a tradition of being good workers which allowed them to cope with the racism of the South. “A man or woman’s reputation did matter in the divided South. The boss man could insult you, beat you, even try to kill you, but dignity and pride were held sacred in the home of Warren Staples. As a member of his family you did not buckle.”

When the long day was done Warren Staples would bring the family together for Bible stories, teaching from the Word, and hymn sings. Harmony and syncopated rhythm became second nature. There is no harmony like family harmony, and the Staples (like the Everlys and the Wilson family) proved the rule. Roebuck took up the guitar, and soaked up influences from the blues of Charley Patton to mix with the Methodist hymns to create something new and unique. Kott describes the development of the Staples’ sound and their career from the early gospel years playing churches right through the time they spent at the Vee-Jay and Riverside labels as they added folk music and protest songs to their repertoire. He follows them to Stax Records when the Muscle Shoals rhythm section added funk and a real groove to their sound and saw them score on the R&B charts. Kott is careful to note that Roebuck “Pops” Staples was the driving force, bringing along his children Cleotha, Purvis (and later Yvonne) to support Mavis’s powerful lead vocal. Pops’ own guitar sound was also key to the sound of the Staple Singers; that sound drawn from Howlin’ Wolf, Tommy Johnson and Charley Patton. Pops, though, always maintained his roots in gospel even though (unlike his father) he saw blues music as just another way to tell a story.

Kott describes the impact that Martin Luther King had on Pops. “If he can preach it,” Pops is famously quoted as saying, “We can sing it.” And he put his money where his mouth was appearing wherever King asked him to, singing for the cause. Not much time is given to the recording of Pops Staples’ solo records, although especially the two later albums are superb examples of Pops’ own singing and influential guitar playing. Ry Cooder, who produced some of the songs on each of those records, was thrilled to be able to watch first hand and to learn how Staples got that thin, lacy but potent sound. Later when Cooder produced Mavis’s major comeback in 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back, he was able to use Pops’ own amplifier to pay tribute to the freedom songs from the civil rights movement and re-introduce Mavis Staples to the music world.

The Staple Singers

The book tells of Mavis’s brief love affair with Bob Dylan, the impact she had on Prince who also produced records for her, and the frustration she felt in being ignored (or mishandled) by a variety of record labels. A favourite story is when Mavis was called on to duet with soul diva Aretha Franklin on a live recording. “When…One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism was released in December, the tensions that had always hung over the relationship between the two singers resurfaced. Mavis groused that her voice had been mixed below Aretha’s, and Aretha acknowledged as much in her subsequent autobiography: ‘Well, I didn’t play her down but I sure didn’t feel like she should be louder than I was on my own album. Mavis has a very heavy voice and for us to sound equal, I had to put her just below me in the mix.’” A quick listen to “Oh Happy Day” on YouTube will give you an idea of Aretha’s reasoning, even if it does prove that Mavis was right. The John Lee Hooker-esque “How-how-how” growl from Mavis right at the start could have taken ownership completely away from Ms. Franklin!
This reader would have been happy with another hundred pages of details of recording sessions and anecdotes from the 60s, but was pleased to see the existence of any book that put down the basic facts of life for a group whose influence goes as deep as The Staple Singers, and their leaders Roebuck “Pops” and Mavis.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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